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Clicker Training Cat Aggressive Pit Bull

Me and my girlfriend recently adopted a rescue pit bull. They think she was likely used for fighting and then breeding. She is the sweetest thing people and has absolutely no human aggression. We also don’t have any other dogs so don’t have to worry about that, but we do have a cat.

When she sees the cat, she goes absolutely nuts. I’ve seen dogs chase cats before for fun, but this is very aggressive behavior towards the cat. If we let her loose with the cat around we are afraid she will kill the cat, so we have to keep them separated and the dog kenneled when we are not home.

We have tried some training sessions giving her high reward treats like hotdogs for when she looks away from the cat (and at me) using a clicker, but she’s just learned when she wants a hot dog she just has to turn around, gets her hotdog, and then goes right back to the cat. Not a care in the world for another hot dog, much more interested in trying to lunge at the cat (shes on a leash and has a muzzle).

Any help on successful methods to train her to leave the cat alone?

Note: My response here goes to greater lengths than is required to merely address Greg’s letter. My apologies Greg for dragging it out but your situation is not unique so I intend to link to what you find below on many occasions when other people write that are being subjected to similar nonsensical training strategies. If you get bored Greg, just skip down to the last paragraph, you’ll find what you need there.

Hi Greg,

If you’re relying on a clicker and high value treats in the manner most amateur dog trainers embrace them, and it appears you are, I wouldn’t want to be your cat.

No offense to the trainer advising you, personally, but professionally speaking it appears you’re working with one of the vast numbers of rank amateurs that are free to exist in the unregulated companion dog training industry.

Based on how you’re describing going about this the only way those ‘high-value treats’ and clicker are going to impact your cat’s future is if your dog confuses which of your hands holds the treat and which hand is holding the clicker and tragically chokes on the clicker.

It’s entirely possible that whoever showed you how to use a clicker as a companion dog training tool doesn’t know enough (or anything) about operant conditioning. What he or she seems to know is just enough to be dangerous which is par for the course with almost all clicker-relying companion dog trainers.

If he or she has armed you with ‘high-value treats’ and a clicker as a sole means to address this level of an issue I absolutely guarantee he or she knows next to nothing about the various multiple factors that need to be reviewed and addressed beforehand or tiered your training program sensibly and appropriately. He or she has put both you and your dog and your cat in the deep end of the pool before it’s time. There’s a reason no one introduces even basic math to a child at the gateway of Disneyland.

I’ll extend my guarantee a step further and say that using what you’ve been shown, he or she has NEVER succeeded in training a dog to exert real self-control in a real-life context around real-life distractions let alone a high prey drive dog cohabiting with perceived prey. Maybe in highly controlled settings but not real world life skills in real-world environments.

If you want to see where this is going watch the video of Shamu the Orca performing a routine he has been “clicker trained” to do in a far more thorough and intense manner than you or any other ‘normal life to live, only so much of themselves left over at the end of the day’ companion dog owner is likely to incorporate. Literally, multiple years of training and tricks completed countless times but in one instance when the unexpected (which should have been expected) where a Pelican lands in the aquarium, and they try and try and try, and yet no one succeeds in motivating him to go on with the show let alone return to his ‘timeout’ pen. He, along with some help, drowns and rips the Pelican to pieces. If you watch the documentary Black Fish you’ll learn he goes on to more significant tragedies. Bottom line, even in that highly controlled setting with years of training and years of trainer training experience and tons of treats the “learned” behavior collapses.

Don’t get me wrong; I use clickers. When it’s appropriate, I really love clicker training, and I encourage my clients to incorporate their use in the teaching of tricks well after the real training is completed as a means to keep a dog’s brain stimulated throughout life. They very much have their place for teaching tricks, early stages of scent detection, and extremely rarely, in very preliminary stages and absolutely not in the manner you are describing, for specific behavior problems. What I mostly use treats for, especially “high-value treats,” is as training distractions as opposed to training rewards. 

If we can find you the right trainer, their approach might use but shouldn’t require treats. I know it’s ‘the thing’ to do, but frankly, we really need to question the validity and the ethics. The dog is the only species I know of that seems bred to love humans. Aiming at their tummies is missing the best part of the dog. It also doesn’t tap into the most accessible characteristics and skills of most companion dog owners.

Companion dog training should be founded on a relationship and not the Bouncer:Drunken Patron relationship of ‘Might Is Right’ companion dog training or the more ‘humane’ Heroin Dealer:Heroin Addict relationship pushed by ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ treat, treat, treat companion dog trainers. For teaching legitimate real world, life skills, no higher order social species on the planet has ever utilized these approaches. Perhaps evolutionary biology may very well have a reason? The most effective model to date and one shared by all higher order social species, dogs, wolves, apes, humans, etc. is parent:child, teacher:student which are neither ‘Might Is Right’ or ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ based.

The use of treats in companion dog training has in my opinion indeed backfired twofold. It has resulted in allowing anyone just because they can get a dog to sit for a treat to start advertising themselves as a dog trainer. Give them a clicker, and they think they’re a behaviorist. Attend a cult-conference, and they become insufferable to those of us that actually know what we’re doing (and they’re doing) and dangerous to companion dogs. 

Also, we now have a continent full of companion dogs that can’t exert self-control worth a whit, never develop proper attention spans and so pretty much live under house arrest and live far under their potential. Where, Come, Stay and Heel used to mean something, they’re now not jobs, they’re tricks and meaningless in real-world settings. For what it’s worth, and because it bears repeating, as I alluded to above, I’m as equally disdainful of companion dog trainers that rely on ‘Might Is Right’ companion dog training techniques.

We are where we are in companion dog training now for a few reasons. One is that the majority of companion dog trainers these days are individuals lacking a post-secondary education that included a thorough grasp of the scientific process, critical thinking, cognitive bias, etc. or failing that – the intellect and self-discipline to independently acquire knowledge in those areas. 

Chances are excellent that your trainer has none of the above. No one that has the described background is ever going to use or recommend clicker training (eliminating 2 of Skinner’s 4 quadrants.) as a means of reliably teaching real-life dog skills for real-life settings.

When I say the majority, I’m not kidding. The number of treat wielding ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog trainers is so now so legion that companion dog owners have little else as a choice when they seek dog training assistance. These ideologists even have self-aggrandizing dogma promoting “professional” associations with claims of being science-based. Because they have not had to put the work in that actual professionals must to legitimately call themselves such they are unable when asked to produce the science that demonstrates the applicability of their ideology in real-world environments and timelines. 

After all, why let scientific reality get in the way of ideological fantasy when the alternative would mean the not insignificant effort to actually learn something about critical thought, scientific methods and cognitive bias for starters before moving on to learn non-laboratory specific behavior from the perspective of ethology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, anthropology, etc.?

I personally think it requires a significant amount of literary license not to mention gall to believe that companion dog training is a profession or a companion dog trainer is a professional. I think (and hope) someday this could and should be the case. However, currently, such terminology is used more to mask the lack of professionalism. From my perspective, if a person can be stocking shelves at the grocery store or cleaning dog kennels can treat in hand, overnight call themselves a ‘professional’ there are a lot of accountants, doctors, lawyers, nurses, electricians, plumbers, etc. with extensive education and actual government regulation and legitimate associations overseeing their activities wondering what becoming a professional or being part of a profession constitutes.

Until companion dog trainers stop pretending to not understand how the word professional is meant to be used and incorporate into what is required to become an entry-level companion dog trainer, that being an education that includes a thorough grasp of the scientific process, critical thinking, cognitive bias, etc., companion dog training will never become a legitimate profession. Companion dogs like yours will remain at the mercy of all too often are nothing more than highly unqualified amateurs.

They may be “emperor” in numbers, but it is no secret to those capable of critical thought that in the world of ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ companion dog training, the emperor has no clothes. They’ve woven together with the invisible thread of pseudo-science a fabric of self and public deception and are wasting the time of real companion dog owners and arguably doing considerable harm. They are the dog worlds version of climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers Sasquatch sighters and other conspiracy theorists armchair Google scientists. The problem is they now outnumber the people that understand that weather and climate are not the same things, the pros outweigh the cons of vaccinations, the earth is spherical, and Sasquatch was someone’s sizeable hirsute aunt or uncle out for a naked drunken stroll.

I suppose I can understand their often vitriolic adherence to dogma when the alternative is to return to work more in keeping with their abilities at least until should they have the intellectual capacity, acquire a legitimate education. Their ethics are another matter.

The following is, in a nutshell, where these scientifically disoriented ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ flat-earther dog training wannabes are wearing blinders and much worse are blindsiding people seeking legitimate help with their companion dogs.

They are drawing on what is entirely legitimate research but ignoring amongst many other things, the nature of the completely controlled environment, level of Ph.D. or graduate student expertise and perhaps most importantly the timeline associated with not just shaping a single behavior but chaining it together into something useful. 

Compare that to the non-laboratory world of the average companion dog world. You cannot legitimately transpose it, which why there is no science to support ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ use in real-world settings. The laboratory is nothing in comparison to the number and level distractions a companion dog owner is competing within their homes let alone outside those homes. 

I’ve never met a companion dog owner that needed a dog trainer to show them how to get a do to do a minor trick for a treat as a ‘down’ for a treat. However, to take teaching something like ‘down for a treat,’ while the owner stares at the dog like they’re trying to bend a spoon with the power of their mind and the dog stares back not at the owner but at the fingers holding the treat . . . To a with or without a treat, down-stay on a mat when a doorbell rings and the dog’s owner actually has to answer the door is another matter. Worse yet is out in public at a local festival with other dogs, squirrels, bicycles, skateboards, etc. 

Is it possible? With enough time and the rare companion dog owner with a life that can revolve around the dog, perhaps, but even then as with Shamu, I’ve seen it fail time and time again “when the pelican lands.”

Again, there is a reason no higher order social species, dogs, wolves, apes or humans embrace such laboratory reliant nonsense. In the human instance, most of our offspring would end up dead or in jail. Goodness gracious, how the heck would you change a baby’s diaper on his or her first cranky day? Sometimes you just pin them down when you have to reach for the wipes. Somehow we grow up with their self-esteem intact.

Lest the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ ideologists attempt to muddy the waters by suggesting that I’m justifying ‘Might Is Right’ companion dog training, I am not. No model is supporting that nonsense either. I don’t write about ‘Might Is Right’ companion dog trainers as much because they are fewer and doing nowhere near the damage the ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ disciples are doing to companion dogs.

In the real world, higher order social species parents are never ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free.’ They are instead ALMOST ALWAYS, ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free.’ They purposefully and for the most part peripherally as opposed to confrontationally (Alpha roll driven, pack leader nonsense) as their offspring mature, develop the relationship authority we associate as Parent:Child or Teacher:Student so when they use their tone and body language they can convey, “You’re warm.’, or ‘You’re cold.’, and extremely infrequently, when that fails, ‘I wasn’t asking your. I was telling you.’, here’s your consequence.

If companion dog trainers can’t understand and get behind that, they should get the heck out of companion dog training as companion dog owners aren’t looking for tricks or robots, or intimidated dogs. They just want a civilized canine companion that they can integrate as fully as possible in their lives inside and outside the home. Companion dog training that meshes naturally with both the companion dog owner and the companion dog because it is based on real science can provide that.

If you want to learn more about the Pros and Cons of various approaches to companion dog training and increase the chances you will resolve this issue with your dog I’d recommend reading this free e-book. I put it together for companion dog owners to help them sift through all the dog training nonsense they are subjected to both locally and online:

What Are The Different And Best Training Methods


John ‘Ask The Dog Guy’ Wade
Embracing Science and Common Sense

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